by Matt Baron
Do your homework: When possible, talk to agencies (police, social service, etc.) before you speak to person(s) who are primary focus of story. File a request for records through the Freedom of Information Act (agencies have seven business days to respond). Use other newspapers’ story or stories as a springboard for an even better story. Often, another story will contain a buried treasure for you to explore in greater depth.
Bury the pen and notebook: During your initial inquiry, don’t scare them with your tools of the trade. Practice a low-key, humanistic approach, but also with firmness and determination.
Become a vessel: Exercise compassion, empathy and respect. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you like to be approached by a reporter in this situation?
Capture the details: Pay attention to the “little things” that speak volumes. Gestures, clothing, possessions that reveal personality, mood. Use all your senses.
Keep an open mind: It’s good to have a list of questions prepared, but keep your ears open and listen closely to what they say, and follow up…
“Tell me more about that….what do you mean?…how did that make you feel?”
Use the Columbo approach: Always, regardless of topic, ask the toughest question or questions last, time permitting. By then, the source will have warmed up to you and will be more willing to answer it. If they get upset, then at least you have gathered enough information to work with.
Keep the communication lines open: Leave your number, clearly informing them of your deadline. Offer to listen more if they have more to tell later.
Follow Up, Follow Through: Often, the best story is the one that takes a look back after a year, or after a killer is sentenced to life in prison, or after someone has made a courageous recovery. Remember…investigative reporting is a never-ending process.
These are among the tips I have developed over my career covering stories involving crisis, tragedy, and other difficult situations.
© Matt Baron All rights reserved